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Al Gilbert at the Market Gallery
Globe & Mail
By R.M. Vaughan
July 16, 2010

Until Sept. 11, St. Lawrence Market, 95 Front St. E., Toronto (www.stlawrencemarket.com/gallery)

Every city needs an Al Gilbert.

The legendary photographer (still active at 88) has been photographing the weddings, graduations and bar/bat mitzvahs of Toronto Jewish families since the 1940s, and, in the process, has become a favourite portrait photographer of Toronto’s famed and fortuned.

A retrospective of Gilbert’s work, Facets of Fame, shows that while Gilbert became celebrated for traditional, formal portraiture, he always allowed some quirkiness, the peculiarities of his subjects, to shine through. Compositionally, these portraits may seem as conservative as your own family’s photo sessions – Gilbert’s subjects are posed centre frame, neatly groomed and flatteringly lit – but a sly sense of humour is evident.

Former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir is photographed with a smoke on the go, looking like René Lévesque in drag. Actor Eugene Levy has a weirdly coy, pin-up girl expression on his face, one undermined by the foregrounding of his werewolf-hairy hands. Al and Sara Waxman pose as a nice suburban couple, in matching tie and blouse, the stress of fame evident behind their slightly too earnest smiles. And Gilbert must be the only photographer on Earth to capture U.S. Vice-President (then senator) Joe Biden with his mouth closed.

My favourite portrait, however, is of Canadian journalist-turned-senator Betty Kennedy. When I was a child, Betty Kennedy was my mother’s ideal, the personification of the accomplished, modern woman. Gilbert’s portrait shows Kennedy seated in front of a tidy desk, her hair and makeup flawless, with her blouse casually open just above her breasts. A crisp scarf is rakishly tied around her neck. She is all business and all fun at the same time – ready to write a column or mix a cocktail. Gilbert catches Kennedy’s particularly Canadian brand of sensible glamour perfectly, and with apparent ease.

Indeed, ease is the dominant mood in all of these portraits. The celebs photographed, while obviously prepped and primped, nevertheless appear charmed by their portraitist. After decades of photographing nervous, overexcited families, how hard to handle are a few politicos and popes?